In a studio physics classroom, I get to know students relatively well. I know where they went to high school. I often know who their physics teachers are. And of course I can see with a high degree of precision how well their high schools – and their high school teachers – prepared them for college.
You would think that when I congratulate a high school teacher in person for doing a great job with a student I’ve had that the reaction would be positive. But I learned years ago (and many of these conversations ago) that even when the news is good that it makes the high school teacher quite uncomfortable. You’d think I’d have learned by now to stop sharing this kind of news with high school teachers, but occasionally I forget and have to relearn the lesson that I should keep this good news to myself.
Comments from a college professor about a student that a high school teacher has had are a particularly personal sort of accountability – apparently too uncomfortably personal. Of course, students come with baggage that their high school teachers had nothing to do with. But after 31 years here, I’ve learned to sort the effects of schooling from everything else that a student brings to college.
In many cases, the students I see have problems that could not possibly have had anything to do with a high school physics teacher – because the student never took high school physics. The blame for the failures of the one-third of engineering, physical science and computer science majors I see who did not have a high school physics class goes to their high schools’ guidance counselors and administrators.
But the bottom line is that no one – and no high school – should brag about how many students it sends to college or even how many start as engineering majors at the beginning of the first year. That is irrelevant. What a strong high school should brag about is how well its graduates do once they are in college, and particularly in the toughest and most rewarding majors available like engineering, the physical sciences and computer science.